Monday, July 28, 2014

Fracking - no silver bullet

The government today invites applications for licences to frack for gas and oil across the country. We need an energy security policy, but fracking is not the answer.

We used to be self-sufficient in energy with limitless reserves of coal. Then we found North Sea oil and gas and the party went on. Now these reserves are running out and we are importing significant amounts of energy.

Although most people believe that much of our gas now comes from Russia that’s not true. About 70% comes in equal proportions from the British and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea and some 20% by ship from Qatar in the Persian Gulf. North Sea reserves are declining and although Qatar is a stable state that is certainly not true of the rest of the Middle East. The ISIS fundamentalists have already taken over large parts of Iraq, including a major oil refinery, and their aim is total domination. Supplies from the Middle East are at risk. If we can extract oil and gas from shale beneath our feet in Britain it’s surely the obvious way to control the supply and the cost of essential energy. In the USA fracking has revolutionised the energy industry. Energy prices have fallen with significant benefits to US industry. The increased use of gas has pushed down the world price of coal (which is one of the reasons why we are using more coal for electricity generation in Britain at present.) 

There have been protests against fracking in the US and the same arguments are now being made here. “Fracking pollutes the groundwater - people’s drinking water is at risk.” “Fracking causes earthquakes.” “Fracking uses vast amounts of water, some of which is recovered and is polluted.” Some of the  pollution arguments are difficult to support. Yes, in the US some people have turned on the tap and been able to light a stream of gas bubbling out of the water. The question is whether this is due to fracking or is naturally occurring. Fracking, which involves driving high-pressure water, chemicals and sand into shale beds to split them apart and release gas, takes place 650m - 800m below the level where drinking water is extracted [British Geological Survey], so it’s unlikely to affect it. There are certainly concerns about water in general. Yes, fracking does use vast amounts of water in the initial stages and this is usually trucked in. Constant lorry movements will be a major impact on local communities. About half the water injected into the shale bed is recovered and has to be treated. Among other things, it’s mildly radioactive. It cannot be sent to the normal sewage treatment works. And what about the water that is not recovered? Where does it go?

Earthquakes? Earth tremors were recorded after exploratory drilling near Blackpool, but they were very minor and about the same magnitude as natural tremors which occur all the time. They are not house-shaking events: they can only be detected with special equipment.

Apart from lorries carrying water to the wellheads, how will the gas or oil be carried out? Either by building pipelines or connections to the national gas grid, or by sending in yet more lorries. It has been suggested that unlike conventional wells, fracking wells can dry up in as little as four years. The only solution is to up sticks, move on and drill somewhere else - not necessarily very far away.

So is the inconvenience of fracking justified by the benefits of energy security, cost control and job creation for the nation? Maybe, if it works. The British Geological Survey has found that there is significant oil beneath the Weald in southeast England and significant gas in the north. It cannot say how much of this is commercially recoverable. It cannot at this stage say whether the geology is similar to the areas in the US where fracking is successfully established. It is possible that the shale beds are folded or uneven because of geological activity, making extraction difficult or impossible. 

Oil and gas from fracking will not be cheap. Extraction is an expensive process and the high level of popular opposition to fracking indicates that there will be policing and security costs as well. It won’t provide a new source of energy overnight. It won’t avoid the blackouts that have been predicted for Winter 2015 in reports since 2005. Oil and gas from fracking are still CO2-bearing fossil fuels, not helping our carbon-reduction targets.

Fracking is no silver bullet.